From rowdy ’70s Punkish Pop stomper to ’80s heartland rocker to ’90s Americana bard to new millennium Folk provocateur, John Mellencamp has reinvented himself admirably over the past 30-plus years, albeit without the big picture importance, durable creativity or stylistic range of Bob Dylan, David Bowie or Neil Young. Mellencamp has always seemed to operate on a Bruce Springsteen Jr. level, spouting a good many workingman aphorisms in a slightly more obvious and slightly less epically poetic fashion.
With the dangerously titled No Better Than This, Mellencamp teams up with dusty producer du jour, T Bone Burnett, to craft a mono masterwork steeped in ’50s Rockabilly and ’60s Folk with the same Indiana mushmouthed passion and everyman conviction that has informed his work both great and small.
“Thinking About You” rings with the intimacy of John Prine (lacking the clever humor and insight), “No One Cares About Me” lopes and banters with Woody Guthrie simplicity (without the populist anthemics) and the title track chugs with the verve of early Johnny Cash (sans the quivering passion and menace). It’s not hard to spot Mellencamp’s influences on a scaled back affair like No Better Than This, where the lack of complexity leaves little room for him to disguise his music or his intentions.
The success of No Better Than This lies in Mellencamp’s passionate recreation of the genres he’s honoring and his confidence in the plainspoked lyrical message. There’s no denying Mellencamp’s mainstream success or his absolute sincerity, and No Better Than This evolves beyond the former and uniquely validates the latter.